This trip marks the fifteenth time since January 1980 Margaret “Maggie” Amsler, M.S. will work at Palmer Station. Palmer is a very special place to her for many reasons. The lab at Palmer is named for her undergraduate advisor and mentor at DePaul University, the late Mary Alice McWhinnie, Ph.D. Amsler’s first trip was as part of McWhinnie’s team.
In 1974, McWhinnie was the first woman named as the chief scientist at McMurdo Station. That season, she and another woman, Sister Mary Odile Cahoon, were the first women to winter at McMurdo Station.
Amsler herself is a part of Antarctica’s history. After earning her undergraduate degree at DePaul, she pursued her master’s degree and continued her Antarctic studies at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She went later with her husband and fellow researcher, Chuck Amsler, to the University of California Santa Barbara, where she was a staff research associate.
In 1985, Amsler was on the first-ever, U.S.-sponsored winter cruise along the Antarctic Peninsula. She was aboard an icebreaker, the research vessel Polar Duke, while working with researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara.
Amsler’s work during her first 12 expeditions to Antarctica followed the same path as her mentor, McWhinnie’s: studying krill, a small, cold-water relative of the crayfish and the basis of the Antarctic oceanic food web. As with expeditions number 13 and 14, this trip, she will work with her husband, UAB biologist Chuck Amsler and her boss, UAB biologist Jim McClintock, studying the chemical defenses of marine plants and animals. She came to UAB in 1996 and worked with McClintock since 2001.
As with her krill research, the fieldwork on the chemical ecology project includes diving. She has many dives in the frigid Antarctic waters studying both krill and chemical ecology.
“Before joining McClintock’s lab, all of the work I did in Antarctica involved studying krill, which generally live deep the water,” she said. “We towed nets from the ship to gather krill. In the winter however, when ice covered the surface of those same waters we had to dive in order to collect krill. Usually we found krill in the first few feet of water, feeding on microscopic plants growing on the ice so we did not have to dive deep.
“We were always tethered so if something happened, the weather turned bad or we got into trouble, we could be quickly pulled from beneath the ice. While diving for the chemical ecology project we aren’t below ice-covered seas and we actually get to go to the bottom of the ocean.”
An avid athlete, Amsler’s hobbies include competing in triathlons and marathons.
“I have done two half-ironman distance races and have competed in more than two dozen other triathlons, mostly in the Southeast,” she said. “I’ve also had a wonderful time running in the Chicago Marathon in two of the past three years.”
Amsler plans to continue her exercise regimen while in Antarctica, including working out on treadmills and stationary bikes at the station during harsh weather. She’ll also be skiing as much as possible and spending many nights sleeping under the Antarctic sky.
“I started sleeping outside many years ago while working at Palmer. One day, I realized I hadn’t been outside in four days the only free time I had seemed to be when I was asleep,” she said. “So I checked out a sleeping bag and ground cloth from the supply room and found a nice flat rock at the base of the glacier. I drifted off to sleep, lulled by the sound of crackling ice and was awakened at dawn by squawking penguins.
“I could not resist such unique lodging, and my nightly ritual grew to include heading out with a thermos of hot water and a wedge of bread for breakfast, and a pair of skis for some morning exercise on the glacier. Last year I took down a bivy sack which is a lot more comfy than rolling up in the ground cloth when the weather turns bad.”
Amsler adds that sleeping outside has become more popular in recent years at Palmer, and if there are too many people sleeping outside, she’ll opt for sleeping indoors for a while. But she’ll still get in her pre-work skiing excursion.
“Even if there’s no snow on the glacier, I’ll go up and ski on the ice. The only problem there is that if I fall, it hurts. But, it won’t be the first time I have come back to the station with bloody knuckles from falling while skiing on the ice.
“Being on skis on an Antarctic glacier is just such a great way to get the day going. I can’t wait.”